Morten Olsen, national team coach of Denmark, can be forgiven if he decides to start shuttling between Copenhagen to Amsterdam on a regular basis. He would though have a very good reason. Ajax, where he won the double in his only full season before leaving unceremoniously, is again preying on his mind.
Outside his homeland no club other than Ajax boasts a larger Danish contingent, compatriots with pivotal roles, who aren’t just there to make up the numbers.
Their 3-1 victory over PSV last Saturday was a testament, spearheaded by one of the most naturally gifted footballers to leave the land of Hamlet in recent years, Viktor Fischer.
Fischer, who recently made his international debut, produced what one observer described simply as art subsequently turning the game on its head. For it to happen shortly after Jeremain Lens missed a golden opportunity to give PSV the lead, when the game was level at 1-1.
The whole movement happened as quickly as it begun, laced with craft, finesse and ingenuity, so you can forgive the PSV defenders, who one after the other Fischer slalomed (Laudrup-esque) past like a hot knife through butter. His second touch, after receiving the ball from Eriksen, the former Danish wonderkid who’s now well established in the game, was immaculate, creating space for him to accelerate into, his deft pass at the end poked in by Danny Hoesen. A piece of individual brilliance is always celebrated, so it wasn’t surprising to see every player run straight to him.
In truth it was the highlight of an all-round solid attacking display by an oft-inconsistent Ajax this season, their best performance to date, that one moment encapsulated the spirit of the club. Fischer eventually got on the scoresheet, pouncing on a misjudged header from Dries Mertens to then round the goalkeeper, which concluded a man-of-the-match performance.
It’s conceivable this game could one day be looked back upon as his coming of age. At the start of the season manager Frank de Boer quietly promoted him to first team involvement, an impressive pre-season lead to his senior debut in the Johan Cruijff schaal against PSV. “He has the qualities to become a major player,” De Boer said. “If he develops, it would be stupid not to include him in the first-team squad.”
His curtain raiser didn’t exactly go to plan. Not that it was his fault, despite his incredible gift, easy to forget he turned eighteen in June and still rides a bicycle to training, parking it between the BMW’s of his teammates. No one was more disappointed than himself, it was meant to be the moment he catapulted into the Dutch football landscape, instead fell flat on his face. Not that it deterred him.
A tireless worker, showcased in his breathless performances last season in the Next Generation Series, which earned him a near cult following. Those who’ve watched him since the early days in Denmark are impressed with his maturity as much as his technical attributes. De Boer knew, if he didn’t already, Ajax had another jewel on their hands.
His promotion coincided with the signings of Lasse Schöne, Christian Poulsen and Lucas Andersen. The recent game against VVV saw four Danes in action Eriksen, Fischer, Schöne and Poulsen started, which was not quite a landmark achievement, since it was last done in a 6-1 over MVV in April 1980, on that day: Henning Jensen, Søren Lerby, Sten Ziegler and Frank Arnesen.
This shows the rich tradition between Danish football and Ajax that a unique feat like this could be replicated. Lerby and Arnesen were the first to arrive in 1975, when professional football in Denmark was nonexistent, since then another 21 Danes followed their footsteps, including Jan Mølby, Jesper Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Jesper Grønkjær.
Today there’s a total of six in today’s squad, the highest since the late 70s-to-early 80s and it’s no wonder they’re being called Amsterdam Boldspilklub Ajax in some quarters.
De Boer believes a similar culture shared between Denmark and the Netherlands makes it easier for Danes to assimilate. Morten Olsen feels Dutch football, more so than ever, is a reference for their domestic game and has in the past advised players to consider plying their trade in the Eredivisie. Jesper Olsen, dubbed ‘De Vlo’ - the flea, long before Lionel Messi, recently paid a visit to De Toekomst, where he recreated his infamous penalty routine with Johan Cruijff. He wasn’t at all surprised with Danes thriving at one of footballs great institutions.
When constructing an all-time Ajax XI the only non-Dutchman that many would agree to include is Lerby. He remains the standard bearer, today a qualified agent with Fischer being one of his more high profile clients, the club great made no secret his wish for Fischer to see out his short-to-mid term future in Amsterdam. Now is a great time as De Boer has restored their traditional system as well as reintroducing individual based training which is geared to speed up the development of the younger members of his squad.
A talent of immense possibilities needs a great deal of looking after, exuberance often clouds what’s best for him, of course Fischer believes he can play every game – that mentality in no way has been forced to be diminished. But burnout is always a possibility and that is something De Boer cannot afford to happen.
Fischer and Eriksen are quickly forming a dynamic duo. The 18 year old is deployed as a wide-playmaker and Eriksen, often acting as a ‘number eight’, or more recently as ‘deep-lying forward, which was successfully displayed against Manchester City in Amsterdam. This is a new position and one he’s enjoyed as it allows more freedom to roam between the lines. Ajax’s fluid 3-1-4-2 formation allows Eriksen and Fischer to play closer to each other, and once they do, it becomes a partnership that serves the Amsterdammers well.
Fischer noted after the PSV game how the system enables the individuality (of the player) and collective responsibility of the team to coexist. A simple, yet succinct, understanding of the Van Gaal doctrine which De Boer is a disciple of.
The Danish duo both love those now familiar one-touch passes that form intricate triangles confusing their opponents. No better demonstrated in a game that looked destined to get the better of Ajax, with Roda JC leading 1-0 and ten minutes left on the clock, Eriksen exchanged a neat one-two with Fischer, who played a deftly weighted pass, allowing Eriksen the room to manoeuvre to stab a left-footed shot for the equaliser. Without getting ahead of oneself there’s no reason it could be similar to the one shared by Mario Götze and Marco Reus.
Despite being two years his senior, Eriksen seems a veteran compared to his countryman. In some ways the emergence of Fischer, whose intelligence bridged the gap, elevated the considerable pressure to perform off his shoulders. For a while Eriksen, like many Danish talents before him, been (un)favourably compared to the great Michael Laudrup, even though their styles are considerably different. In the case of Fischer, without getting ahead of myself, it’s obvious he’s off a similar mould of a floating playmaker.
Behind the club’s most exciting prospects sits Lasse Schöne. His free transfer in the summer from NEC was seen as a good piece of business, after a slow start settled into life in Amsterdam becoming a key component in De Boer’s transformation of the club, departures in the summer, such as Anita’s exit to Newcastle, meant team-building once again. Schöne initially started as ‘the controller’, a number six,before stepping aside for Christian Poulsen and since been used as a central midfielder with equal responsibility in attack and defence.
Playing as a controlling midfielder, retaining and recycling possession, which Vurnon Anita made an art form last season, is simple enough if you’re not playing for a side fixated with ball circulation and an extreme form of possession-based football. Poulsen, greeted on arrival with scepticism – even by José Mourinho, has floated between the extremes either having a great game or an ineffective one. The feeling is Ilan Boccara will take over the reins after the winter break but Poulsen’s role off the field, who’s the only player over thirty plus years of experience, holds a high stature in the eyes of the young Danes, which is invaluable.
The only two who’ve yet to feature are talents considered just as promising as Eriksen and Fischer, is Lucas Andersen, an all-round 18-year-old prodigy capable of playing wide or through the centre of midfield. Another name to note is Nicolai Boilesen, a youngster who’s on his way back from injury. He predominantly plays left-back but can easily slot into centre of defence.
The term ‘Danish Dynamite’ might seem inappropriate as it conjures images of Denmark’s greatest side. Today, unequivocally, Ajax possesses the talents who could forge the core of a future side that may follow in the footsteps of Sepp Piontek’s side that bedazzled the world.
Morten Olsen recently said of Fischer: “He is a fantastic footballer, who is developing rapidly and in top condition.” Lerby and Michael Laudrup (as well as Preben Elkjær) were centre pieces of one of the most exciting sides to grace international football. Eriksen, Fischer and Andersen could very do the same as we head deep into the second decade of the twenty-first century.
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